Pick Your Poison: Nitrites and Nitrates

The 4th of July is a time to celebrate our country’s independence, and what better way to do so than to continue the tradition of firework displays and backyard cook outs? Considering that the Fourth is the nation’s number one grilling holiday, it should come as no surprise that around 155 million hot dogs are consumed. There’s just something so satisfying about indulging in a juicy hot dog slathered with mustard on a hot summer day. If processed meats, such as the hot dog, were limited to summer holidays, maybe there would be less cause for worry. In addition to high levels of sodium and saturated fat, many of these products contain nitrates and nitrites. You’ve probably heard about avoiding these additives, but are they as bad as they seem?

Nitrites and nitrates are chemical compounds derived from inorganic nitrogen that are used to preserve meats – extend shelf life, inhibit bacterial growth. They can be found in deli meat, bacon, and our holiday staple: the hot dog. Nitrates can be broken down in the body to form nitric oxides, which are considered a “good” thing, and nitrosamines, which are “bad.” Some speculate that nitrosamines are created when there is reduced acidity in the gut.

Research has linked 34,000 cancer deaths to processed meats annually, and both red meat and processed meats have been shown to lead to more instances of coronary heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes than other meats, such as fish and poultry, and vegetables. The media has reported that consuming 50 grams of processed meats a day can increase a person’s risk for colorectal cancer by 5-6%. To put that into perspective, 50 grams equates to about one hot dog or 6 slices of bacon.

So obviously nitrates and nitrites should be avoided at all costs, right? Well, maybe. Recent research has found that nitrates from vegetables are protective against cardiovascular diseases. But didn’t I just tell you nitrates lead to heart disease? I sure did. So maybe it’s just the source of nitrate? Turns out naturally occurring nitrates from vegetables are the same molecule as those in processed meats. What!? In fact, many “nitrate- and nitrite-free” meats use celery juice which, you guessed it, contains nitrates. Some researchers believe that nitrates should be considered a nutrient rather than a contaminant to be avoided. And just to add a little more fuel to the fire, organic vegetables contain less nitrogen than their conventional counterparts due to the differences in fertilizing methods.

Ready for more? The method of cooking and the composition of the meat might be more to blame than the addition of nitrates. Smoking meats, cooking with high heat, and heme iron, which is usually found in processed and/or red meats, are all suspected culprits linked to nutrition-related disease. But my precious meats! Marinades, spices and seasonings, and cooking low and slow can all reduce the amount of potential carcinogens in the meat you are consuming.
What is the conclusion from all this? Moderation! With such a change in recent findings and the numerous studies suggesting the health risks associated with both processed meats and nitrates/nitrites, it is probably a good idea to limit consumption. So, grill up those dogs, crack open a cold one, then kick back and relax, but maybe don’t “rinse and repeat.”



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